Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter LV

A Dead Letter

With that great tornado, the wind took a leap of more points of the compass than I can tell. Barnes, the fisherman, said how many; but I might be quite wrong in repeating it. One thing, at any rate, was within my compass — it had been blowing to the top of its capacity, direct from the sea, but now it began to blow quite as hard along the shore. This rough ingratitude of wind to waves, which had followed each breath of its orders, produced extraordinary passion, and raked them into pointed wind-cocks.

“Captain, we can’t live this out,” cried Barnes; “we must run her ashore at once; tide has turned; we might be blown out to sea, with one oar, and then the Lord Himself couldn’t save us.”

Crippled as we were, we contrived to get into a creek, or backwater, near the Major’s gate. Here the men ran the boat up, and we all climbed out, stiff, battered, and terrified, but doing our best to be most truly thankful.

“Go home, Captain, as fast as you can, and take the young lady along of you,” said Mr. Barnes, as we stood and gazed at the weltering breadth of disaster. “We are born to the drip, but not you, Sir; and you are not so young as you was, you know.”

“I am younger than ever I was,” the lord of the manor answered, sternly, yet glancing back to make sure of no interruption from his better half — who had not even heard of his danger. “None of that nonsense to me, Barnes. You know your position, and I know mine. On board of that boat you took the lead, and that may have misled you. I am very much obliged to you, I am sure, for all your skill and courage, which have saved the lives of all of us. But on land you will just obey me.”

“Sartinly, Captain. What’s your orders?”

“Nothing at all. I give no orders. I only make suggestions. But if your experience sees a way to recover those two poor bodies, let us try it at once — at once, Barnes. Erema, run home. This is no scene for you. And tell Margaret to put on the double-bottomed boiler, with the stock she made on Friday, and a peck of patent pease. There is nothing to beat pea soup; and truly one never knows what may happen.”

This was only too evident now, and nobody disobeyed him.

Running up his “drive” to deliver that message, at one of the many bends I saw people from Bruntsea hurrying along a footpath through the dairy-farm. While the flood continued this was their only way to meet the boat’s crew. On the steps of “Smuggler’s Castle” (as Bruntlands House was still called by the wicked) I turned again, and the new sea-line was fringed with active searchers. I knew what they were looking for, but, scared and drenched and shivering as I was, no more would I go near them. My duty was rather to go in and comfort dear Aunt Mary and myself. In that melancholy quest I could do no good, but a great deal of harm, perhaps, if any thing was found, by breaking forth about it.

Mrs. Hockin had not the least idea of the danger we had encountered. Bailiff Hopkins had sent her home in Rasper’s fly by an inland road, and she kept a good scolding quite ready for her husband, to distract his mind from disaster. That trouble had happened she could not look out of her window without knowing; but could it be right, at their time of life, to stand in the wet so, and challenge Providence, and spoil the first turkey-poult of the season?

But when she heard of her husband’s peril, in the midst of all his losses, his self-command, and noble impulse first of all to rescue life, she burst into tears, and hugged and kissed me, and said the same thing nearly fifty times.

“Just like him. Just like my Nicholas. You thought him a speculative, selfish man. Now you see your mistake, Erema.”

When her veteran husband came home at last (thoroughly jaded, and bringing his fishermen to gulp the pea soup and to gollop the turkey), a small share of mind, but a large one of heart, is required to imagine her doings. Enough that the Major kept saying, “Pooh-pooh!” and the more he said, the less he got of it.

When feelings calmed down, and we returned to facts, our host and hero (who, in plain truth, had not so wholly eclipsed me in courage, though of course I expected no praise, and got none, for people hate courage in a lady), to put it more simply, the Major himself, making a considerable fuss, as usual — for to my mind he never could be Uncle Sam — produced from the case of his little “Church Service,” to which he had stuck like a Briton, a sealed and stamped letter, addressed to me at Castlewood, in Berkshire — “stamped,” not with any post-office tool, but merely with the red thing which pays the English post.

Sodden and blurred as the writing was, I knew the clear, firm hand, the same which on the envelope at Shoxford had tempted me to meanness. This letter was from Thomas Hoyle; the Major had taken it from the pocket of his corpse; all doubt about his death was gone. When he felt his feet on the very shore, and turned to support his mother, a violent wave struck the back of his head upon Major Hockin’s pillar-box.

Such sadness came into my heart — though sternly it should have been gladness — that I begged their pardon, and went away, as if with a private message. And wicked as it may have been, to read was more than once to cry. The letter began abruptly:

“You know nearly all my story now. I have only to tell you what brought me to you, and what my present offer is. But to make it clear, I must enlarge a little.

“There was no compact of any kind between your father and myself. He forbore at first to tell what he must have known, partly, perhaps, to secure my escape, and partly for other reasons. If he had been brought to trial, his duty to his family and himself would have led him, no doubt, to explain things. And if that had failed, I would have returned and surrendered myself. As things happened, there was no need.

“Through bad luck, with which I had nothing to do, though doubtless the whole has been piled on my head, your father’s home was destroyed, and he seems to have lost all care for every thing. Yet how much better off was he than I! Upon me the curse fell at birth; upon him, after thirty years of ease and happiness. However, for that very reason, perhaps, he bore it worse than I did. He grew imbittered against the world, which had in no way ill-treated him; whereas its very first principle is to scorn all such as I am. He seems to have become a misanthrope, and a fatalist like myself. Though it might almost make one believe the existence of such a thing as justice to see pride pay for its wickedness thus — the injury to the outcast son recoil upon the pampered one, and the family arrogance crown itself with the ignominy of the family.

“In any case, there was no necessity for my interference; and being denied by fate all sense of duty to a father, I was naturally driven to double my duty to my mother, whose life was left hanging upon mine. So we two for many years wandered about, shunning islands and insular prejudice. I also shunned your father, though (so far as I know) he neither sought me nor took any trouble to clear himself. If the one child now left him had been a son, heir to the family property and so on, he might have behaved quite otherwise, and he would have been bound to do so. But having only a female child, who might never grow up, and, if she did, was very unlikely to succeed, he must have resolved at least to wait. And perhaps he confirmed himself with the reflection that even if people believed his tale (so long after date and so unvouched), so far as family annals were concerned, the remedy would be as bad as the disease. Moreover, he owed his life to me, at great risk of my own; and to pay such a debt with the hangman’s rope would scarcely appear quite honorable, even in the best society.

“It is not for me to pretend to give his motives, although from my knowledge of his character I can guess them pretty well, perhaps. We went our several ways in the world, neither of us very fortunate.

“One summer, in the Black Forest, I fell in with an outcast Englishman, almost as great a vagabond as myself. He was under the ban of the law for writing his father’s name without license. He did not tell me that, or perhaps even I might have despised him, for I never was dishonest. But one great bond there was between us — we both detested laws and men. My intimacy with him is the one thing in life which I am ashamed of. He passed by a false name then, of course. But his true name was Montague Hockin. My mother was in very weak health then, and her mind for the most part clouded; and I need not say that she knew nothing of what I had done for her sake. That man pretended to take the greatest interest in her condition, and to know a doctor at Baden who could cure her.

“We avoided all cities (as he knew well), and lived in simple villages, subsisting partly upon my work, and partly upon the little income left by my grandfather, Thomas Hoyle. But, compared with Hockin, we were well off; and he did his best to swindle us. Luckily all my faith in mankind was confined to the feminine gender, and not much even of that survived. In a very little time I saw that people may repudiate law as well from being below as from being above it.

“Then he came one night, with the finest style and noblest contempt of every thing. We must prepare ourselves for great news, and all our kindness to him would be repaid tenfold in a week or two. Let me go into Freyburg that time tomorrow night, and listen. I asked him nothing as to what he meant, for I was beginning to weary of him, as of every body. However, I thought it just worth while, having some one who bought my wicker-work, to enter the outskirts of the town on the following evening, and wait to be told if any news was stirring. And the people were amazed at my not knowing that last night the wife of an English lord — for so they called him, though no lord yet — had run away with a golden-bearded man, believed to be also English.

“About that you know more, perhaps, than I do. But I wish you to know what that Hockin was, and to clear myself of complicity. Of Herbert Castlewood I knew nothing, and I never even saw the lady. And to say (as Sir Montague Hockin has said) that I plotted all that wickedness, from spite toward all of the Castlewood name, is to tell as foul a lie as even he can well indulge in.

“It need not be said that he does not know my story from any word of mine. To such a fellow I was not likely to commit my mother’s fate. But he seems to have guessed at once that there was something strange in my history; and then, after spying and low prying at my mother, to have shaped his own conclusion. Then, having entirely under his power that young fool who left a kind husband for him, he conceived a most audacious scheme. This was no less than to rob your cousin, the last Lord Castlewood, not of his wife and jewels and ready money only, but also of all the disposable portion of the Castlewood estates. For the lady’s mother had taken good care, like a true Hungarian, to have all the lands settled upon her daughter, so far as the husband could deal with them. And though, at the date of the marriage, he could not really deal at all with them — your father being still alive — it appears that his succession (when it afterward took place) was bound, at any rate, as against himself. A divorce might have canceled this — I can not say — but your late cousin was the last man in the world to incur the needful exposure. Upon this they naturally counted.

“The new ‘Lady Hockin’ (as she called herself, with as much right as ‘Lady Castlewood’) flirted about while her beauty lasted; but even then found her master in a man of deeper wickedness. But if her poor husband desired revenge — which he does not seem to have done, perhaps — he could not have had it better. She was seized with a loathsome disease, which devoured her beauty, like Herod and his glory. I believe that she still lives, but no one can go near her; least of all, the fastidious Montague.”

At this part of the letter I drew a deep breath, and exclaimed, “Thank God!” I know not how many times; and perhaps it was a crime of me to do it even once.

“Finding his nice prospective game destroyed by this little accident — for he meant to have married the lady after her husband’s death, and set you at defiance; but even he could not do that now, little as he cares for opinion — what did he do but shift hands altogether? He made up his mind to confer the honor of his hand on you, having seen you somewhere in London, and his tactics became the very opposite of what they had been hitherto. Your father’s innocence now must be maintained instead of his guiltiness.

“With this in view, he was fool enough to set the detective police after me — me, who could snap all their noses off! For he saw how your heart was all set on one thing, and expected to have you his serf forever, by the simple expedient of hanging me. The detectives failed, as they always do. He also failed in his overtures to you.

“You did your utmost against me also, for which I bear you no ill-will, but rather admire your courage. You acted in a straightforward way, and employed no dirty agency. Of your simple devices I had no fear. However, I thought it as well to keep an eye upon that Hockin, and a worthy old fool, some relation of his, who had brought you back from America. To this end I kept my head-quarters near him, and established my mother comfortably. She was ordered sea air, and has had enough. To-morrow I shall remove her. By the time you receive this letter we shall both be far away, and come back no more; but first I shall punish that Hockin. Without personal violence this will be done.

“Now what I propose to you is simple, moderate, and most strictly just. My mother’s little residue of life must pass in ease and comfort. She has wronged no one, but ever been wronged. Allow her 300 pounds a year, to be paid as I shall direct you. For myself I will not take a farthing. You will also restore, as I shall direct, the trinket upon which she sets great value, and for which I sought vainly when we came back to England. I happen to know that you have it now.

“In return for these just acts, you have the right to set forth the whole truth publicly, to proclaim your father’s innocence, and (as people will say) his chivalry; and, which will perhaps rejoice you also, to hear no more of

“THOMAS HOYLE.

“P.S. — Of course I am trusting your honor in this. But your father’s daughter can be no sneak; as indeed I have already proved.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31